Instead of giving you guys just one take on this weird show, I’m just going to cram a whole bunch of them together. You’re welcome!
I.Recapitulation of the Problem
b) Quotation from previous post:
The story: as a child, Utena’s parents were tragically killed in an accident. While grieving, she was consoled by a mysterious prince who, before disappearing in cryptic fashion, gifted her with a ring that would one day reunite them. So impressed is she by his manner that she herself decides to become a prince who will rescue damsels in distress and so forth.
Flashing forward to adolescence, Utena attends the prestigious Ohtori Academy, which looks like what would happen if you repurposed Minas Tirith as a high school, and which is effectively run by an absurdly powerful student council. The student council, on orders from a mysterious person known as End of the World, is engaged in an elaborate series of duels which involve slicing off a rose pinned to an opponent’s chest with live swords (perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Utena is the lack of impaling and dismemberment that such a contest would likely entail) in a floating arena, suspended above which is an upside-down castle. The champion of these duels becomes engaged to the so-called Rose Bride, a girl with mysterious powers named Anthy. Whoever the champion is at the end of these duels gains the right to enter the castle where they will be gifted with the “power to revolutionize the world.”
As it turns out, dueling candidates are chosen by dint of their having received the exact same sort of ring that Utena wears. She winds up being goaded, without understanding the circumstances, into challenging the current champion (Saionji, student council vice-president and narcissistic abuser) to a duel, and wins, thus becoming attached to the Rose Bride and bringing the attention of the student council. After some initial reluctance, she decides to keep fighting; at first in the hopes that it will unravel the identity of her prince, but ultimately to protect Anthy and save her from being a de-facto slave passed around like a football.
b) The real story
The Prince was originally Dios, a godlike entity which went around being Superman to the whole world and made everyone princesses or something. This turned out to be taxing on his health, and so his sister, the Rose Bride (Anthy), sealed away the power of Dios in an attempt to save him. This caused her to receive the anger and wrath of the world, basically leaving her in a state of constant pain and torment. Over time, Dios grew kinda lazy and corrupt, and became End of the World (Akio, Anthy’s brother and acting chairman of Otori academy). Meanwhile, Anthy grew resentful of her constant punishment.
Akio wants to re-attain the power of Dios (the power to revolutionize the world), and doing so evidently requires the entire elaborate system of duels in order to sufficiently power up the champion’s sword, the Sword of Dios, to a level of strength capable of breaking the seal. The champion was never intended to receive the power themselves, and indeed almost all the mystical pageantry with the floating castle and extravagant duelling arena is an illusion created by a rather impressive projector that Akio owns. Akio and Anthy are manipulating everyone for this purpose. Despite learning all this, Utena still sees the good in Anthy and, in an act of self-sacrificial love, gives Anthy the courage to leave Akio and the academy behind.
Man, when you phrase it like that, it kinda sounds like a Kingdom Hearts game.
The most common and obvious interpretation is that Revolutionary Girl Utena symbolically depicts the painful but necessary transition from childhood to adult maturity. For that reason alone I’m just going to ignore it.
Ohtori Academy is Plato’s cave, a world of sensory illusion in which the characters are bound. The characters are literally subject to unreal projections. Pushing things into a more discomfitingly gnostic direction, Akio is a maleficent demiurge keeping the characters enslaved in this world for his own inscrutable purposes.
2.Platonic by way of esoteric Straussian reading
Ohtori Academy is a representation of the meritocratic polis in miniature, the characters in question ostensibly being groomed to become wise, just rulers. However, the pedagogy is intended to be ironic in effect. Ohtori Academy, a supposed image of the just state, is in fact an absurdity and an illustration of what can go wrong when the supposedly wise set themselves up as philosopher-kings. The characters are covertly being taught to not waste themselves on statesmanship and instead devote themselves to the life of the mind.
c)Akio as eros as god
Akio is the personification of what can happen to eros when it becomes an idol. His primary means of manipulation is by way of sexuality, and his plans succeed due to the toxic relationships that the characters are often embroiled in. Eros can be a cruel and demanding god that ultimately doesn’t love you. This was eloquently captured in Book III of the Faerie Queene, when Britomart enters Castle Busyrane and confronts a rather sinister version of Cupid:
Next after her, the winged God him selfe
Came riding on a Lion rauenous,
Taught to obay the menage of that Elfe,
That man and ebast with powre imperious
Subdeweth to his kingdome tyrannous;
His blindfold eies he bad a while vnbinde,
That his proud spoile of that same dolorous
Faire Dame he might behold in perfect kinde,
Which seene, he much rejoyced in his cruell minde.
Of which ful prowd, him selfe vp rearing hye,
He looked round about with sterne disdayne;
And did suruay his goodly company:
And marshalling the euill ordered trayne,
With that the darts which his right hand did straine,
Full dreadfully he shooke that all did quake,
And clapt on hye his colourd winges twaine,
That all his many it affraide did make:
Tho blinding him again, his way he forth did take.
Utena is being. Anthy is nonbeing. Together they form the concept of becoming. The duels are the dialectic wherein Spirit becomes itself through time and attains absolute knowing.
Utena, in the duel known as Revolution, approaches the moment of absolute paradox, the necessity of the prince and the impossibility of the prince. Through a double movement of faith she passes the test, surrendering everything and attaining everything.
Akio’s projections and system of dueling manufactures seemingly eternal religious values and artificial needs which are used to reinforce existing class structures and keep the proletariat characters in a state of complacency. Only by seeing through these falsehoods and taking direct action can the true revolution take place.
Male uniforms have a tendency to suggestively come undone for no reason at all, a tendency which increases as the show progresses. This indicates that Ohtori Academy has contracted the production of these uniforms to a low quality manufacturer. Furthermore, the academy seems to be perpetually understaffed, as we rarely see any faculty, and indeed almost never see them actually teaching. All this suggests severe budget cuts. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s quarters has a projector which can physically manifest objects, while the Student Council is given an entire tower with a picturesque view. All this is obviously an indictment of how many educational institutions allocate funding in an inefficient manner, resulting in greater financial burdens on students and a lower quality of education.
f)It’s all theatre
Everything about the castle and the duels is, of course, an elaborate show put on by Akio to trick the main characters. But that sense of artifice extends to the entire aesthetic of the show, from the shadow puppets to the tableaux and the near continual use of motifs referencing theatre, radio and cinema. In Lynchian fashion, the show makes us self-conscious of the fact that what we are watching is indeed an elaborately staged work of fiction.